This weekend turned into a bit of a philosophical journey for me. As I finished Black Legion for the Book Club I was struck by how civil Khayon is in his narration. I noticed it last book, as well, but it seemed rather pointed in this book. This then got me rereading large swathes of the Honsou Chronicles (FKA The Iron Warriors Omnibus) by Graham McNeill, and rereading portions of the Night Lords Omnibus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. Talos, Honsou, and Khayon all share a common thread and that is their civility and rationale. Which I would argue makes them not only effective villains, it makes their evil all the worse.
Not a Single Mustache Twirl
We’ve seen space marines in plenty WH40k novels both good and bad. Generally in loyalist-centric novels, the traitor legions are painted as either raving lunatics (akin to rabid dogs), or Dick Dastardly-esque creatures who might as well kick a puppy upon entrance.
I’m not saying all of these characters wouldn’t kick* a puppy, but they’re so much more insidious in their presentation. Khayon, throughout his narration, very clearly explains himself and his conduct, but he never comes across as though he’s attempting to justify his actions. He wears his evil on his sleeve, but it’s such a nicely tailored sleeve.
Even Honsou, with his “let’s burn all of Ultramar to the ground” plan, doesn’t feel like he’s ever twirling his mustache. As he’s trying to wrangle a demon lord to his cause, he manages to do it all in stride, as though this is a rational and logical attack on an enemy.
To be perfectly fair, Talos might be far too nihilistic to not be rational and calm, but despite his terrible deeds, Talos never comes across as cackling manically in a corner, either. The Night Lords do everything they do to survive and continue fighting the Long War. In fact, Talos and his band’s evil is mostly done just to not be part of the Imperium, which might make it even worse.
Manners Masking Malice
In many ways, you can see the hints of diplomats that several primarchs strove for. You can clearly see hints of Horus as leader-of-men (not just Space Marines) in Abaddon’s mannerisms. Magnus treated his sons as scholars and masters of the arts, which Khayon demonstrates so clearly in all of his words. In fact, much of Talon of Horus and Black Legion could be described as a professor’s lecture on the nature of traitordom.
For Talos and Honsou, there is a different type of civility on display. Perturabo was the consummate soldier and general, and Honsou reflects these tendencies like a direct mirror. In many of his interactions he feels like a colder, harder version of George C. Scott, leading his men in the most logical campaign. The man’s a general and is proud of his actions, knowing he can’t be screaming and foaming at the mouth like a lunatic. He has plenty of daemons for that nonsense.
Talos, by comparison, has his father’s honesty and never once denies what and who he is, which makes all the slavery and death even worse. He approaches all of his interactions, whether it’s with Septimus or with his brothers, with a straight-forward manner. He sees the Imperium as a farce, and doesn’t want to die in some pointless war for yet another deluded general (Abaddon). In many ways, Talos reminds me of what Konrad could have been had he been a little more grounded.
Never Forget What They Are
The thing that strikes me most about all of these stories, is that when the horror and evil comes out, it comes out in such a blasé manner. Khayon regularly admits his atrocities and violence against the Imperium as quick little footnotes. As if the slaughter of millions doesn’t even bear repeating or notation in his story. All of the Night Lords stories are written in such a way that the suffering of the humans at their hands has an air of “as one does” to it. The Night Lords aren’t bothered by this, why are you?
Honsou is perhaps the worst of the bunch and yet, there is an undeniable charisma to him. Each setback or seeming defeat is a new challenge to him, like some sort of grimdark David Xanatos. Except each new challenge is just an opportunity for more horrific bloodshed. And yet, his dialog is so crisp and smooth, you can’t help but like the guy. There’s a reason Graham McNeill has an entire omnibus to the villain from one of the six Ultramarines novels he wrote.
Much like the film classic, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, just try to tell me you weren’t rooting for the Night Lords by the end of the novel. Sure, you root for Septimus and Octavia, too, but in a scene with Xarl and a Blood Angel, who did you want to come out on top? I was devastated at the death of a wholly, unapologetically evil character, because by God he was funny and charming in his own brutally honest way.
The Hannibal Dilemma
There’s something irresistible about a dashing villain. It’s why people loved Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal, George Sanders had a long career, and why Paradise Lost remains required reading in universities. In the black and white universe of Warhammer 40,000, the traitor legions are easy to dismiss as repugnant evil because they are. Yet three of the most compelling characters to grace paper are definitely not touting the company line. Through their honesty, charm, and sensibility, they keep us hanging on their words and rooting for their evil deeds. Not a lot of sci-fi or fantasy universes successfully pull that off.
*I mean, at best they’d kick it. At worst… Well, anyway.